“Red Tails” is based on the true story of the Tuskegee Airman (nicknamed the Red Tails), the first all-African-American aerial combat unit to serve in World War II while the group is stationed in Italy in 1944. The Tuskegee Airman given second-rate operations, but the pride of the pilots does not diminish as they fight to prove their merit to be considered equals with their Caucasian counterparts. Against the odds, the Red Tails quickly make a name for themselves, but sometimes have to fight tension within their own ranks.
“Red Tails” (directed by Anthony Hemingway) was developed for about 23 years by executive producer George Lucas before the movie made its way into theaters. The film’s ensemble cast includes Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley and Tristan Wilds, who all play Tuskegee Airman. At the “Red Tails” press junket in New York City, “Red Tails” co-stars Parker, Oyelowo, producer Rick McCallum, Roscoe Brown (real-life Tuskegee Airman) and director Hemingway sat down together for this roundtable interview with journalists. Here is what they said.
It took “Red Tails” executive producer George Lucas about 23 years to make this movie. Can you talk abut this long odyssey?
McCallum: I think one of the problems that George faced when he first started abut 23 years ago was the [original] idea was to do the full story, the epic film of what the guys had to go through, in terms of not only the racism but also the shocking behavior of how the Army treated African American in Tuskegee, plus the hellish two-and-a-half years that everybody had to spend going through there. Then there the part of going to the war that originally they only gave to North Africa and the Army again not letting the guys fly. And the finally, when [the U.S.] was losing so many bombers — 50, 60 bombers a day with the English — they had no choice but to use the Red Tails, that part of the story was a huge, major thing.
And then the worst part of the story is having to come back to the United States, after not only having served the country honorably but fighting for your own country, and then coming back and to have to live through all the misery and pain of all the bullshit that existed still before they had left. So that huge story was the story that everybody wanted to tell. We all wanted to tell it, but it was too difficult, too unwieldy, too hard, and we just financially couldn’t be able to do it. And there wasn’t the time.
How can you do a movie like that for two hours? Then we thought, “Can we do it as a three-hour movie as a road show?” It just didn’t work. And finally, it came down to a point in 2005, after we finished [the] “Star Wars” prequels where George said, “I just want to do the part that is the most inspirational and aspirational,” which was the part in Italy when the guys actually got a chance to [fly in combat]. All they wanted to do was serve their country. All they wanted to do was a chance. This story is the par where they have their chance. And that’s the part where we decided, “OK, this is what we’re going to do.” And then, of course, we got to meet Anthony [Hemingway], and that was the direction we headed for.
Brown: There was an HBO movie in 1995, which was more like a documentary, that talked about the training and so on. But this particular movie focuses on the combat activity. And it was really the combat activity that gave us our reputation. If we’d never gotten into combat, if we’d never shot down an airplane, we’d be just a memory somewhere. But because we did such a great thing, the combat really highlights the addition of special effects, which are outstanding in this film. It gives young people a chance to get something to relate to.
“Red Tails” is obviously a World War II movie, but can you talk abut how the civil-rights movement was portrayed in the movie?
Brown: It shows the civil rights because it talks about “you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and you must do this,” so in that sense, it talks about the civil rights. The struggle went back to 1940 and the NAACP and the black press is difficult to highlight in a dramatic film. It’s good in the documentary.
You probably know about the “Double [Victory]” documentary that [George] Lucas has produced, which has interviews and black press and so on. So the [“Red Tails”] movie focuses on the combat activity. And that will get the attention of the public.
Oyelowo: And also, with a film of this size, an epic film that we have made with the desire for it to cross over, to be a global film, I think you marginalize the film and the audience by concentrating predominantly on that. The great thing about the Tuskegee Airman, the untold thing about them is just the heroism, the sheer swagger they had, the fact that these guys were the movie stars of their day within the black community and without.
That’s one of the things we tried to show, in terms of other white pilots, with whom they gained respect, because that’s the way they crashed through the color barrier by what they did, as opposed to who they were. And that’s what we really want to depict in this [movie]. It’s for kids and grown-ups all over. We’re not just making for one particular community or one particular group.
For more info: “Red Tails” website